Have home, need services: Part 1, who’s the client?

June 24, 2010 | Apartments, Assisted living, Elderly, Homeownership, Innovations, Policy, Tenure, US News

By: David A. Smith


Though we esteem homeownership, and imagine it as being a domicile for ever more, our reality is that we will live in many homes throughout our lives – and like the Sphinx’s man, who walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening, the amount of space we need shifts with the arc of our lives.  As we age and weaken, as our family shrinks with children moving away and spouses dying, not only do we need less space, we need fewer and fewer responsibilities, and eventually, we need others to take care of us.  For most of us, the caregivers and support come from our extended family, but for many elderly – nearly all of them women – the role needs to be played by somebody who began as a stranger and later became a tenant, a worker, and with luck a friend. 



What we’d like to imagine: strangers from two generations who became friends under one roof

“Shared housing can be a win-win for two people. Photograph: HomeShare Vermont”


The challenges of homesharing, as the tenure and living configuration is known, are optimistically profiled by Kirby Dunn of HomeShare Vermont in a Federal Reserve Communities and Banking article, The future of homesharing (link in pdf):


Homesharing is a common-sense approach to helping people stay in their homes while helping others find affordable housing. 


There lies homesharing’s great appeal – we wish it could work.  When we imagine an elderly person living alone, the vision summons our wellsprings of filial piety – especially if we know someone who faded before our eyes.  To such a person, home is more than a place, it is a living museum of memories, inhabited by loved ghosts and familiar surroundings. 


So we want homesharing to work, and we envision the ideal tenant, the surrogate child or grandchildren.  Yet the reality is discouraging:


Although the nonprofit infrastructure that assists with screening and matching potential homesharing candidates has declined in the United States more than 60% since 1986 –


Any business model that’s shrunk by a factor of 2 ½ in a quarter-century must have serious flaws.



Remember when you thought that was cool?


– the recent economic downturn has brought a resurgence of interest both here and abroad.


Interest is not feasibility; interest is hope.


So with hope in our hearts, and skepticism in our minds, let’s look at the homesharing concept.


Homesharing doesn’t require ongoing subsidies or expensive construction or rehab.


No, it relies on an elderly person who already owns a home, and implicitly one who has minimal mortgage payments remaining (or who’s taken out a reverse mortgage) and thus has a secure indefinite-duration tenure.


It is just neighbors helping neighbors—and helping themselves at the same time.


In fact, homesharing is quite a bit more than that.  It’s a complex relationship that combines two distinct economic bargains:


1. Landlord-tenant



The arrangement is a lease even if there’s no piece of paper


2. Employer-employee



I’m hiring you to live with me and provide domestic support


Further, the employer relationship is as a live-in domestic worker – and the employer is declining, if not frail or feeble.  Thus, unlike the normal rental relationship where the landlord has leverage and the tenant has mobility, here the tenant has most of the leverage.


That’s why the term ‘homesharing’ is a misnomer, for the home is not being shared — and it would be dangerous for anyone involved, most especially the renter, to think that it is.



Nice apartment – glad I’m sharing it with you


Nevertheless, stay positive!



Stiff upper lip, chaps


Doubling the Benefits


Homesharing benefits two groups at once:


[1] Those needing affordable housing

[2] Those needing a live-in person.


Forgive me for finding it curious that the affordable housing is mentioned first, because that’s obviously not the goal.  The goal is helping an elderly person (usually woman) remaining independent in her home.



What we don’t want: people being warehoused to die


If homesharing works, it’s symbiotic, the forming of an artificial family, recreating the inter-generational caretaking that normally occurs in extended families. 


Although sometimes it is simply a roommate situation and “match-ups” don’t differ from other roommate-matching services, it usually has a service component.


Without the service component, then homesharing is absolutely nothing more than a roommate or rental-rooms arrangement, little different from an in-law apartment.  The additional tenant, unrelated by blood or marriage, raises questions of zoning – who is allowed to live with us?


Someone looking for an affordable room offers assistance in addition to or instead of rent. The assistance might be for elders or people with physical or mental disabilities who want to continue to live at home.


Physical disabilities are easier to protect against than mental ones.  My mother lost her faculties to Alzheimer’s, then lost her emotional equilibrium and her ability to orient.  Had we allowed her to homeshare, I cannot imagine that she would not have been horribly exploited.



Let this never happen to your mother


Some programs are targeted to helping the homeless find housing.


That worries me; in America, most people who are chronically homeless have a behavioral problem; they are not whom I would want living with my demented mother.  Would you?


The ability to provide affordable housing makes the model work especially well in regions with tight housing markets. 


In economic terms, when the housing market is tight, people are willing to do more work to secure quality accommodations.


Consider that, of the new homesharing arrangements that HomeShare Vermont started in fiscal year 2009, the average rent was only $159 per month.  Moreover, only 61% of those offering a room charged any rent at all: 25% of the arrangements were service only, no rent or utilities; 22% asked for a contribution toward the utility bills.


This is an in-house employment arrangement.  That doesn’t in any way invalidate it as a business or tenure model, but let us be under no illusions; these residents are giving care.


Although getting some rental income is nice, surveys from HomeShare Vermont clients who need in-home help show that there are other benefits for people who share living space. (See “HomeShare Vermont Home Providers Assess the Model.”)



Money is the least important criterion


People who are still in the program are by definition satisfied with the arrangement, so they naturally offer revealed-preference justifications.


Rent is the icing on the cake; it’s all about service.


The Art of the “Match”


The key to successful homesharing is the match. The match must ensure that the needs of both parties are met and that there is not an imbalance. For instance, the person who needs a place to live must also be able to provide the rent and/or services expected.


Yes – it isn’t a room, it’s a job, and you had best be able to do it.


Many would-be tenants would never commit to 30 hours a week of service, for example, no matter how attractive the home. Getting both partners to have reasonable expectations can be difficult.



Think how many people have to be involved — most of them volunteers


Homesharing involves a bargain freely entered into by independent parties dealing at arm’s length – however, both parties have to be cognitive and independent.


Although many people can find homesharing situations on their own, having a third party such as a nonprofit to recruit good candidates, provide screening, and offer potential matches can greatly facilitate the process.


This is a market waiting to be made by a market-maker and credit enhancer.  Except in natural student magnets like college towns and professor’s-row locations, it’s unrealistic to expect individuals to find housemates and then vet them not just at move-in but throughout the tenancy.


Screening varies by organization but often includes (1) in-home interviews, (2) personal references, (3) landlord references, (4) criminal background checks, and (5) abuse registry checks.


This is a lot of (uncompensated) work.  I admire those who do it, but it is no model for a business – unless, that is, government intervenes and provides subsidy.


Getting two strangers, often from different cultures or generations, to live together successfully under one roof is not easy.


They’re certainly going to be different generations – possibly two generations’ different.


Simple things, such as location, rent, gender, smoking, and pets, will likely eliminate the vast majority of situations for one party or the other.


As shown in the table below, it has a high rejection rate:



15% of those who at intake actually get matched


Then there is lifestyle, schedule, interests, and personalities.


It’s not just landlord and tenant, where I have my private space and you have yours.  It’s more than a rooming house as well.


Security is predicated on either locking all your doors or utterly trusting the person who sleeps in the same dwelling you do.  If the resident who has a key to your house is untrustworthy, if she brings home a boyfriend or a party or a drug deal, then you are the victim.  Hence homesharing, although ostensibly between two people, really implies the offstage chaperone – external supervision is absolutely essential.



Except that this ends in marriage …


It is therefore critical to have a big enough pool of potential sharers—a requirement that makes the program more difficult to run in rural areas, where there is lower population.


In short, it requires a business model.  Homesharing would work better if the agency were itself the landlord, and were buying and selling people’s homes … but that would move the homesharing operation out of the volunteer service sector and into a capital-intensive business.


[Homesharing could be combined with a reverse-mortgage sale to the homesharing agency – but that too would be a real-estate-ownership business model.  Perhaps homesharing needs to go there.  – Ed.]


Although the concept of sharing housing with nonrelatives is not new, the United States is credited with creating the intergenerational homesharing model. It started out as a service offered by nonprofits in the early 1980s, with a focus on helping elders to remain at home.


That should be Job 1, and stay as Job 1.



Living with dignity, happiness, and independence?


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]